Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat 7/19/2003 5:12 AM
Random Thought: Shelf Talkers

Like an opened good bottle of aged champagne, there's a lot of stuff bubbling inside me. Maybe it's just that the beginnings of the fall semester is only a few weeks away (I'm never wild about those going-through-the-motions meetings), I'm starting to put this challenging summer behind me, I miss the classroom, I miss being with the students, I'm looking forward to the inevitably challenging coming semester, and I'm starting to gear up emotionally, spiritually, physically, and intellectually for that very exciting first day.

Anyway, there's a little madness in anyone who goes out power walking before dawn at five in the morning. There's even more madness if he is blending together reflections on a recent trip through the Napa Valley, a recent conversation with a colleague about the validity of grades, and a recent NPR (National Public Radio) show on "shelf talkers."

Do you know what a "shelf talker" is? Don't feel bad if you don't. I didn't know until I was driving along on the highway several weeks ago listening to the Morning Edition on NPR. John McChesney was doing a piece on wine ratings. That's how I learned about shelf talkers. Next time you go to buy a bottle of wine, notice that little piece of paper neatly hanging on the shelf beneath the bottle. That's the shelf talker. On it, in microscopic print, is a description of the wine. It might read: "While the appearance says youth the bouquet says development. Deep, thick, opaque ruby in color with spicy scents on the nose with plummy fruit aromas. On the palate the impression continues with ripe, integrated, full body oak and fruit flavors interlaced with supple tanins dripping with typically, earthy, gamy character. For serious wine lovers." Above that description is the emboldened numerical evaluation of the wine on a 100 point scale used by the tasters of the two leading wine magazines, WINE SPECTATOR and WINE ADVOCATE. That numerical rating has become a convenient and easy wine merchandiser. The higher the point value of the wine, supposedly the finer is the wine, the "more serious wine lover" would be the buyer, the more the wine is touted, and, of course, the more it usually costs.

And yet, there is trouble in Napa Valley that has been fermenting for the past decade. As wine drinking has become "democratized" and the ranks of the novices to wine swell, the ratings have become more and more important. Most people think the ratings are as scientifically accurate as taking someone's temperature with a thermometer. The ratings suggest precision; they suggest objectivity; they suggest a common standard; they suggest a particular quality of taste; they suggest that the art of wine-making can be reduce to quantification.

Most buyers do not know that the numerical ratings are far more subjective than they think or want to think. And so, many of us, especially those new to this nectar of the gods, allow ourselves to be seduced to buy wine by the numbers, allowing the numerical indicators to become our absolute dictators, and treat wine as if it is as mysterious as Coke. Why not. The rating creates the impression of a quick and easy and infallible way to make a quick and easy "good" selection of wine for that special dinner that night. After all, why hang around to waste your time reading the description under the rating number when it often reads like the gibberish winespeak of the connoisseur and expert vintner that reminds you of the wine amateur you are.

The ratings, on the other hand, offer a pseudo-expertise, maybe even a snob appeal. They certainly have become a security blanket for the "lazy" and insecure wine buyer who doesn't know or want to know very much about bouquet, merlot, vintage, reserve, zinfindal, estate, full body, legs, shiraz, thin body, character, grenache, aroma, terroir, earthy, attractive, assertive, pinot noir, balanced, crisp, closed, chardonnay, etc, etc, etc.

A lot of people in the wine industry are uncomfortable with this suggested objectivity and precision. That there is a real difference between a wine rating of 89.6 and 90.4 they charitably say is a joke. They argue that the ratings do not talk of the taster's preferences, that they don't indicate his likes and dislikes, that the wine ratings are little more than the opinion of a very few people, that the ratings are totally subjective, that ratings don't say a thing about the character of the wine, and that the ratings don't say a thing about the taste of the wine. Now before you moan and groan, keep in mind that for whatever reason everyone has jumped on the short-hand ratings bandwagon: vintners, wholesalers, retailers, buyers.

I had a taste of that rating game when I was out in the Napa Valley last month on a touristy wine-tasting trip with my family. The numbers were thrown in our faces at every "move 'em in, sell 'em, and move 'em out wine-tasting room (my son, Michael, was the designated driver). When I ask about the bouquet or aroma or body, there was a slight jerk of surprise across the counter. Too many sellers in the cellars didn't want to take the time to discuss such matters; they preferred the short-hand approach as if the ratings said it all. And yet, there was more than one very high rated wine that neither Susan nor I were high on. They just did not suit our palates. And, when I told one person at a winery that her high rated, reserve wine just didn't have the right "mouthfeel," she gave me a "how dare you" look as if I was some Neanderthal.

Now, a lot of you are already asking, "what does this have to do with what we do in academia, with teaching, with administering, with advising, with whatever?" Good question. My quick answer is, "A lot. Just substitute 'grade' for 'wine rating.'" You see, the more I listened to McChesney's interview, the more I realized he could have been talking about education and grades. Grades and test scores and GPA's are academic shelf talkers. Think about it. People want to believe grades are scientifically precise when they are not. They want to believe that there is some exact difference between an 89.6 and a 90.4 when there isn't. They want to believe grades are void of subjective preference of the graders when they are not. They want to believe there is a common standard in grades when there is not. They want to believe they know how the grade was arrived at when they don't. They want to believe that grades indicate what a student has learned when they don't. They want to believe grades predict what a student will do with what he or she knows when they do not. They want to believe that there isn't anything particularly mysterious in the process of teaching and learning when there is.

I do not have any sympathy for teachers or advisers or administrators or students or anyone else anymore than I have for vintners and wine retailers and wine buyers. For all the cries and moanings and groanings about the inadequacies of grades, the first thing anyone does is to pull out and wildly wave SAT and ACT scores, other standardized scores, grades and GPAs, and rate students--and themselves--accordingly.

Now if a grade is an indicator, a place to begin to understand a student, a place to begin to understand the extent of and nature of learning, a place to begin to understand the quality of teaching, one of many indicators, that's fine. But, too often, most often, like the wine ratings, it is the place where most begin and where most end. It has become the absolute dictator. It has become the whole story. We are enthralled with a simpleton's version of education. And, we have become simplistic bean counters. We believe the grade is the window into the student's intelligence and ability and potential. We believe that the grade doth make the person. We don't have to get to know the student because the grade says it all. We believe that all we have to do is open our roll/grade book and we have a complete biography of the student.

Consequently, all we ask is "how is that graded" ("assessed" in modern jargon) or "how will this affect my grade" or "how much does this count towards the grade" or "what is this or that worth" or "what grade did you get" or "what is your GPA." We allow the grade to so influence our assumptions and presumptions and preconceptions about a particular student that we don't feel it necessary to get to get to know the student for the person he or she is. Acceptance, honors, probation, awards, suspension, class ranking are almost always a quick and easy numbers game. And, it will remain so as long as the producers and retailers and buyers of an education want a quick and easy buy and sell, as long as they want to drink rather than savor an education, as long as they are unsure about the purpose of an education, as long as they are insecure about the mysterious nexi of nuances called the individual person, and as long as they don't quite have a handle on the complex and complicated--and often mysterious--processes of meaningful teaching and learning.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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